Social distancing: how to WFH without (mostly) losing your mind.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s sick of the c-word. But like it or not, there’s no denying COVID-19 has swept into our world taking no prisoners. Apart from the massive health implications, the day-to-day disruption has already been enormous. And we’ve only just begun.

As a self-employed writer who lives in a semi-rural setting, I am one of those assholes who hasn’t had to adjust their lives very much. Social distancing has been the bedrock on which my life has been built, for years. And while I apologise if this is making you want to stab me, I am NOT writing this piece to rub salt into that particular wound.

Instead, I want to share my perspective on the challenges that come with WFH (working from home… yep it’s now an acronym). I appreciate the sudden WFH lockdown will be incredibly difficult for a lot of people – and I’m hoping that some of the stuff I’ve learned over the last 8 years might help someone, somewhere. I also firmly believe everyone needs to rethink their expectations of what’s possible to achieve under this new set of circumstances.

So here goes… my short list of WFH must-haves, adjusted for our current apocalyptic conditions.

MUST-HAVE 1: The right set-up.

The ‘right’ set-up for you will depend on your job. But for most office-bound workers, it’s likely you’ll need a modicum of peace & quiet, an ergonomic desk/chair/computer, and a decent internet connection.

For some of us, these simple things are not so easy to obtain. Most of us will have had zero time to get a home office handily set up and assessed for potential chiropractic trauma. And if you have kids… well peace and quiet within the four walls of your home will be a distant memory.

That said, there ARE a few things that can help you with the basics. Clear boundaries as to when others can and can’t enter your space (a door with a sign... and possibly a lock… locks are GREAT).

Also, getting the right heights for your chair, desk and computer (this article explains how). It’s been suggested that those without a decent chair may be able to take their work chair home for a period of time, which seems fair. I also feel I should warn you once again about the dangers of Boffice (bed office). It seems like a good idea, but it's a slippery, slippery slope leading to a crick in your neck and some extremely disturbing dreams.

As for other gear, most of us expect our employers to help equip us for the WFH debacle with laptops, remote server access and so on. But if you’re getting frustrated at your boss’ lack of support, please remember they’re likely to be struggling too. None of this is ideal. They’re currently worrying about a host of things, from cyber security risks, to maintaining employees’ safety in the home setting.

So, just do your best with what you have. And avoid the lure of Boffice. This is all anyone can ask.

MUST-HAVE 2: A schedule.

Trust me, it’s so easy to slip into a world where you lurch from the fridge to bed to desk in a totally randomised way. And right now, COVID-19 has destroyed a lot of organisations’ carefully laid plans – so meetings are harder to schedule and keep, deadlines up in the air, project plans stalling, and team members much harder to pin down (sick kids, stockpiling for the end of days etc.).

To put it simply, even the most well-organised businesses will be finding it hard to enforce a working schedule for all employees who are WFH – which means you need to determine one for yourself, and stick to it. This can be a lot harder than it looks.

If WFH is a novelty, you might be loving the sudden ‘get-up-whenever, do-it-whenever’ vibe. But trust me – taking liberties with routine is the quickest way to lose track of your work, get overloaded, become detached from reality, and end up like this.

If you’re not used to setting your own schedule, try this excellent technique. Once you’ve broken the day up into 'units' of time, and looked at what you need to achieve, it’s easier to slot it all in. (Especially now your options for extra-curricular fun are slim to none.)

MUST-HAVE 3: Childcare, covered.

If you have kids, you’ll be no stranger to multi-tasking. But let’s be real: this cannot extend to doing your usual job, and caring for the little ones simultaneously. Try and do both and you truly will lose your mind.

The childcare issue is likely to be one of the biggest challenges we face during the Coronavirus outbreak. Even if schools aren’t closed, many families will fairly want to keep their kids home to prevent spreading infection – and grandparents will suddenly need to be far more mindful of their own exposure. The upshot: working parents will suddenly be expected to parent AND work fulltime. Which is unrealistic and unfair.

There’s no easy solution to this one – but it’s more than fair for working parents to have realistic discussions with their employees about at least reducing or adjusting hours (so more can be done at night, for example, while kids are theoretically asleep. Anyone who has actually managed to pull off this tactic, I applaud you).

MUST-HAVE 4: A realistic & flexible approach.

Probably the most important must-have of all.

This is NOT an average week where we all decided we felt like a break from the office. Never before have so many of us been suddenly relegated to our homes, without adequate warning, preparation or connectivity. Things literally will NOT run smoothly. For anyone. For a while. And this means we all have to be as patient, understanding and flexible as we possibly can.

It’s not an excuse to say ‘fuck it’, and stop trying to do your job (if you have one, and you’re allowed to work from home, you’re luckier than the many casual workers who have been left unemployed).

Equally, it’s not worth losing your mind over the fact you can’t function at your current level. You won’t be able to. Neither will anyone else. As mentioned before, all we can do is do our best with what we have, communicate as openly as we can, be realistic, and stay positive. This is true for employees – but it’s especially true of managers who set teams’ expectations.

Even the ATO is offering immediate support to businesses affected by COVD-19. And if the ATO can muster up some flexibility and understanding, surely the rest of us can?